Starry, starry night, Paint your palette blue and gray….Gilly Smith and Brighton poet and artist Rosy Carrick to The Dome to immerse themselves in the world of Vincent Van Gogh
Van Gogh Alive UK has produced a powerfully immersive experience at Brighton Dome, with more than 3,000 images projected onto surfaces taking us into the heart of his artistic expression and the depths of his struggle with his mental health. Using quotes from his own letters to pull us right into the centre of his extraordinary mind, it’s a poignant reminder of how much he still has to say about everything we care, or we should care about – love, friendship, time, nature. Mental health.
The soaring musical score – Handel, Satie, Barber, as well as Lakme’s Flower Duet, forever appropriated by British Airways, is no doubt designed to tug the tears, but it works. The babies playing on the floor, alive with sunflowers and starry night, were the only ones not wiping their eyes.
And what a brilliant way to discuss mental health. This travelling exhibition has already captivated over 8.5 million visitors in over 85 cities worldwide, and in the UK has partnered with Mind to enable free tickets to be given to those who need to see this most.
I wonder what Vincent would have made of it all. Actually, it’s pretty clear after immersing ourselves in his thoughts. “I feel there is nothing more artistic than to love people”, he tells us from the walls of The Dome.
I asked Brighton poet and artist, Rosy Carrick, who spent a month in the summer of 2021 in Arles where Van Gogh lived in the 1880s immersing herself in the mind of a man who spoke to her broken soul of the time. She also travelled to Auvers-sur-Oise near Paris, where he died in 1890, after painting over 80 canvases in about 70 days. Much of Rosy’s theatre work is based on her fascination with time travel, and reading his letters among the vivid Provencale palate collapsed the centuries for her into an unusually intimate connection. “He talks in such depth about the amazing colours; the yellow and the blue”, she told me as we walked through the exhibition. “It feels like he must be exaggerating, but when you’re actually in those places you feel like you’re in a painting all the time.”
As the narrative of Vincent’s life was played out on the walls, she gave me a unique commentary. “The thing I love so much about him is his letters,” she said, referring to more than the 2000 letters he wrote, many to his brother Theo. “He’s so endlessly optimistic and passionate, and takes his work so seriously. He talks about it being part of an ongoing artistic conversation; that even if nothing comes from what he himself is doing, it will be a link in the chain, a part of the conversation taken up by the next artist. He believed that so firmly. You can’t help but just be in awe of him.”
Van Gogh Alive is the story of a brilliant man, too beautiful perhaps for this world, as Don McLean sang. He wrote that he put his heart and soul in his paintings, and in the process, he lost his mind. I asked Rosy if, as an artist, she can relate to that. “Not so much with the art” she said, “but I do feel like I’m sometimes too full of intensity and I need a way to smooth it out of me. And sometimes you get too much into the thing that you become entangled in it, and you stay entangled.” She explained that despite the common perception that Van Gogh channelled his despair into his art, it was actually impossible for him to produce anything during the episodes of his mental illness. It was only when he became more lucid again that he could paint the madness into form. “What you get from his letters”, she said, “is that the art was very much his way of staying alive”. “I dream of painting, and then I paint my dream”, whispers Vincent from the walls.
If there isn’t already a Van Gogh book of affirmations on the Mental Health shelves of all good book shops, there surely will be soon. “What would life be if we didn’t have the courage to try anything?” he suggests to the room. Rosy remembered one of his letters to Theo. “He talks about the urgent need ‘to become alive to that which is damaging to the spirit’. That letter really made me examine myself – in fact it changed my whole life.”
His spirit of optimism is captured in one of the most poignant quotes of the whole exhibition, the words of an artist who would never see financial success in his own lifetime, whose battle with mental illness had him commit himself to an institution, who famously cut off his own ear after a row with fellow artist Paul Gaugin, and killed himself aged 37. “I can’t change the fact that my paintings don’t sell, but the time will come when people will recognise that they’re worth more than the value of the paints used in the picture.”
“There’s this total transparency and directness in the way that he expresses himself,” said Rosy. “He manages to be so melancholy and so endlessly hopeful at the same time. That’s what’s so beautiful about him.”
Van Gogh Alive will run from 20 May to 3 September 2023. To purchase tickets and learn more about the experience, visit the Van Gogh Alive website:
Follow Gilly Smith at @foodgillysmith and Rosy Carrick at @rosycarrick
There’s also a Spotify playlist to go with the exhibition: